I want to talk to you about a show on Lifetime. Wait! Don’t click away! I promise this will be worth it. Traditionally, Lifetime has been the network best known for giving Jenny McCarthy something to do at Christmas time, but this one is different. The network recently debuted one of the most fun and innovative scripted shows of the summer, and I’m here to tell you that you should absolutely be tuning in to UnReal.
Created by Sarah Shapiro with an assist from Buffy alum Marti Noxon, the show is a look behind the scenes of a dating reality show. If that show looks and feels exactly like the long-running ABC franchise The Bachelor, that’s because Shapiro is a veteran of the show and and UnReal is broadly inspired by her experiences working there. If you’re thinking that this show isn’t for you because you either despise The Bachelor or because you love it so deeply that you hate to see it skewered, then think again. While reality dating competitions have been widely parodied, most recently by Yahoo Screen’s Burning Love, this one is different.
The show certainly has a sense of humor when it comes to its cast of reality producer villains, but there’s also just enough kernels of truth in the mix to make it totally fascinating for reality fans and reality haters alike. The show is the closest we’ve ever come to a look at how producers cajole, edit, and manipulate contestants into behaving the way no normal human ever would. It’s a fascinating look at how one might go about creating the familiar reality TV “types” that are found nowhere in human nature. Even when those scenarios aren’t totally plausible, they’re definitely food for thought.
The show is cynical to its core, most of the main characters are reprehensible monsters who make their living manipulating people into emotionally-scarring traumas in pursuit of ratings, but in the age of TV anti-heroes, this is what’s known as “good television.” Series lead Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) could give Don Draper a run for his money when it comes to being damaged and a brilliant manipulator of human emotions. What makes her compelling, if not likable, is her constant deep embarrassment over her own personal behavior. She may be able to control others, but she has zero control over herself and she’s paying a heavy price for it. She’s ably assisted by Constance Zimmer (House of Cards) as her shamelessly villainous producer. In anyone else’s hands, this character would lapse into cartoon villainy — but Zimmer brings just enough flinty-eyed damage to ground her in reality and reality.
The show isn’t completely merciless, but it reserves most of its empathy for the contestants of its fictional reality show. The women all represent familiar reality show types, but it also takes pains to show viewers how they are molded and positioned into their familiar arcs. Everyone is afforded a fair amount of backstory and personal savvy. You have the sense that they’re all flawed but basically decent people trying to work their own angles in the face of a much more capable operator in the form of Rachel.
The first four episodes have already aired on Lifetime, but let’s be honest, no one is really watching TV anymore. Lucky for us the network is trying something new with its most exciting new series. The first four episodes of the show are all available for free download on iTunes and on Hulu. In a post Breaking Bad world, networks have realized that quality shows don’t need to pick up an audience right away in order to flourish. In fact, shows like Breaking and Fox’s surprise smash Empire continued to grow throughout their runs because of streaming audiences, and Lifetime is wisely betting on UnReal being just such a late bloomer. Do yourself a favor and download the first four episodes now for your weekend binging pleasure.
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